Here's a look at and some impressions on the Marist women's basketball team, after your Hoopscribe's first in-person viewing of the team this season.
Just when most conference followers thought this might be the year the Red Foxes came back to the pack ....
Marist is now 10-0 in conference play with an 11-point, but not easy, 56-45 victory at Siena on Sunday.
It was the Red Foxes' 34th straight victory over conference opponents, a streak that includes both regular-season and conference-tournament games, dating back to the last regular-season game of 2009-10.
What's amazing is that Marist is doing it this year after all of this: graduating an elite backcourt of 2010-11 Player of the Year Erica Allenspach and standout point guard Elise Caron and, then, suffering the unexpected transfer (to USC) of emerging offensive talent 6-4 Kate Oliver. If that wasn't enough, it also lost this year's starting point guard, senior Kristine Best, for the season (knee injury) after six games. (Best hopes to return to play again in 2012-13).
Rarely does any team lose three key starters and, then, another starter right away in the following year and not suffer a significant drop.
The drop for Marist? After outscoring conference opponents by an average margin of 23.6 points per game a year ago, the team is "only" winning by an average point differential of 14.4 points this season.
"To be honest, I didn't expect this," claimed Marist head coach Brian Giorgis, the architect of the greatest dynasty the MAAC has ever seen for either men's or women's programs. "This has been a pleasant surprise."
So, how has it happened?
As Poughkeepsie Journal sportswriter Mike Benischek opined after a recent Marist victory over Iona: "The Red Foxes rise to the occasion, and fight for it with as much grit as any Marist team has in the past."
Rise to the occasion?
How about on these occasions, from Sunday afternoon's victory at Siena?
When Siena had pulled within five midway through the second half, Marist's junior forward Kelsey Beynnon drained a three-pointer to push her team's advantage to eight.
Two minutes later, with Siena still hanging within nine points, Beynnon swished another deep trey to push the Saints' deficit to 12.
Prior to those three-pointers, Beynnon had made just 5-of-26 three-point attempts on the season.
Siena once again got within range, pulling within seven with 3:10 remaining and was making a strong defensive stand that appeared destined to have the Saints get a possession to pull even closer.
Instead, as the shot clock ticked down to two, reserve freshman point guard Natalie Gomez, who had struggled this day (eight turnovers in 16 minutes) to the point where she was clearly hanging her head at times, had the ball in her hands, fired away from 21 feet out ... and hit nothing but net.
It was the only shot she made in the game and just the fourth three-pointer she converted all season.
"That," said Siena coach Gina Castelli, "was the biggest shot in the game."
Rising to the occasion?
How about sophomore Casey Dulin, the team's least-used scholarship player a year ago, stepping up to volunteer as Best's replacement at point guard seven games into the season, averaging 8.6 points and having the MAAC's seventh-best assist-to-turnover ratio entering Saturday's contest?
Finding ways to win?
Marist didn't play particularly well, committing an uncharacteristic 16 turnovers while suffering a huge 45-26 disadvantage in rebounding. But, somehow, through clutch shooting and a traditional defensive blanket that, on this day, held Siena to 25.9 percent shooting from the floor (and 22 turnovers by the Saints), Marist rose to the occasion.
This wasn't expected to be another proverbial brick in the wall of unmatched Marist seasons. This was supposed to be the year, with the graduations, Oliver's defection and Best's injury, that someone quite possibly would catch up to Marist.
Instead, it's just more of the same, and let's give a great deal of the credit to what Giorgis does in his practice laboratory at the school's Poughkeepsie, N.Y., gymnasium in what just might be his best work as a coach yet.
What has he done to date at Marist? An 8-10 conference record in his first year (2002-03) was followed by a 13-5 2003-04 record that matched Siena's as the MAAC's best that season (although Siena held tie-breakers to be the post-season tournament's top seed).
Since then, it has been wall-to-wall Marist.
Since the start of the 2003-04 season's post-season conference tournament (which Marist won) Giorgis's teams have been an unbelievable 148-12 record against other teams from the MAAC, a .925 winning percentage.
And, it looks like there's no end in sight.